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Movie Review: Truth

TruthPosterTruth co-starring Cate Blanchett (Cinderella) and Robert Redford (Captain America, An Unfinished Life) is at best a cold, hard character film about today’s journalism. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that you need to recall every detail or even the headline about the 2004 CBS News story by Dan Rather (portrayed here by Mr. Redford), with producer Mary Mapes (Blanchett), that brought Rather down. Part of Truth‘s point is that today’s shouting match, agenda-driven news business overemphasizes trivial details at the expense of solid, investigative reporting.

Asking questions, probing for closer scrutiny of those in power—demanding to know the truth—is the theme of this two-hour tale of a report about President Bush that came apart if not necessarily undone. The movie’s carried all the way by Blanchett as an intense and passionate but hard and myopic producer. Beginning and ending with the 2004 presidential election, an event in which journalism ought to matter the most, she wants the story of a National Guard scandal surrounding George W. Bush’s dubious service so bad she can smell it.

But there’s only a whiff. Truth concerns what it takes, with her “crack” team (Mad Men‘s Elisabeth Moss, Topher Grace, Dennis Quaid), operating within the early 21st century’s toadying corporate news media that kiss up to government, to do the reporting and get the story just right. CBS News anchorman Dan Rather, depicted here as a sort of journalistic godfather, is on stand by to go live when Mapes and company have the goods. What happens as the story unravels, with Bruce Greenwood (Capote, Eight Below) as a top CBS suit and Stacy Keach as a key source, shows both the left-wing bias of modern news media—Mapes, Rather and team are guilty as charged—and the less apparent fact that the freedom of the press to be biased and pursue an angle, whatever its predisposition, is crucial in a free society.

If Truth doesn’t exactly dramatize why establishing whether Bush dodged the draft, obtained special favors through his powerful government family and influenced or controlled the press, it shows how it is likely. Especially when you realize watching a Bush press conference video clip that almost every jibe, dig and sneer at the media is part and parcel of today’s corrupt Obama administration, down to exact words about troops in Afghanistan and the war in Iraq. Truth matters, writer-director James Vanderbilt (The Amazing Spider-Man) proposes in Truth, it matters very much, and even when pursued by the shrill and the pompous—as Blanchett constantly runs her hands through her mop of hair—on the left or the shrill and the pompous on the right, the people ought to take truth seriously. Truth shows how and why the people do not, chiefly through Blanchett as Mapes, a damaged woman with a reason to be hard-charging whatever her flaws. Rather, too, in this incarnation, though never as straight and concise as Harry Reasoner or Walter Cronkite, comes off as a simple Texan driven by curiosity above all who, it should be remembered, was disgraced by CBS News only to be hired by Mark Cuban, who is hardly part of the vast left-wing, or, for that matter, conservative, media conspiracy.

Think about what matters and stay true to the pursuit, Truth argues, in powerful family scenes which ought to remind today’s jaded audiences the high cost of being a journalist, blogger or truthseeker, and challenge everyone in power, though Truth abbreviates this as FEA (which I figured out well in advance and you probably will, too).

“Who the f— are you people?!?” A taxi driver asks as three broadcast journalists under fire climb in as the media frenzy turns on itself instead of on those running the government. Truth answers this question and reminds the audience what value such people are to the governed.

Movie Review: Bridge of Spies

BridgeofSpiesPosterSteven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies starring Tom Hanks (Larry Crowne, Toy Story 3, Angels and Demons) is another carefully plotted exercise in moral equivalence and equivocation. The fact-based spy story is measurably better than Mr. Spielberg’s modern Arab terrorist apologia, Munich (2005).

The DreamWorks picture begins with meticulous details of espionage absent its intent and purpose. As with most Cold War-themed movies, such as X-Men: First Class, the nature of the conflict between the world’s only nation based on man’s rights and the bloodiest dictatorship to exist on earth is, to a large extent, ignored or evaded. Instead, as usual, America and Soviet Russia are generally depicted as morally similar or equivalent, with one crucial exception later in the movie. The exception is powerful, but it is incidental.

Details are nevertheless engaging, especially if you know American history. In 1957 New York City period setting, costume and music, in lush film awash in dark blue, black and brown, Mr. Spielberg (Schindler’s List, Lincoln) shows a Communist spy fronting as a painter named Rudolf (Mark Rylance, perfect in the role) fussing with a double-edged razor blade, a coin and a book of matches. When detained by the FBI, as prone to incompetence here as they are today, he quickly establishes guilt to the audience.

The weaselly Soviet’s threat to the United States is neither framed that way nor made evident to his Bar Association-designated lawyer, James Donovan (Hanks), who chooses to defend him—every other attorney declines to represent him—on the grounds of giving the accused a proper defense in a republic based on the Constitution. This portrayal of insurance lawyer Donovan, a Democrat later picked by President Kennedy to negotiate with Communist Cuba who ran for and lost a seat in the U.S. Senate, makes him out to be a non-partisan Constitutionalist, which I’ll leave to historians to address. In Bridge of Spies, Donovan is a decent if agnostic American lawyer, partner, husband and father.

Doing what he regards as his duty, at great risk to his family and firm and over objections by his law partner (Alan Alda), Donovan argues to the Supreme Court on behalf of a man accused of aiding an enemy which may seek to wage a nuclear act of war on the U.S.

When asked if he is curious about the accused’s guilt, Donovan replies: “No, not really.”

This is the main flaw in Bridge of Spies; the leading character, whom the audience is to believe capable of real bravery and integrity, is daft, cavalier or knowingly ignorant about the impact of intelligence gathering for acts of war. Contrary to his lack of curiosity about whether the accused aims to aid the enemy in gaining a capacity to destroy New York City, Donovan later shows curiosity about whether the accused is in danger. Donovan’s higher regard for the life of a suspected KGB agent than for potential harm to his own family, firm and country poses a serious character credibility problem.

When a single vote determines the Soviet’s appeal, Bridge of Spies takes a turn. It starts to feel like Mr. Spielberg’s answer to Munich critics. Co-written by Joel and Ethan Coen (True Grit) and Matt Charmin, with strong, even performances by Hanks and Rylance, and Amy Ryan as his wife with Dakin Matthews as a judge, everything dovetails to international intrigue culminating in an attempt to deal with Communists in Berlin, the post-World War 2 city decimated thanks to National Socialists and divided into east and west. It’s a Cold War climax in director Spielberg’s masterful hands. Berlin serves as a staging ground for Donovan’s possible redemption, though Bridge of Spies is murky about this, too.

With a jazzy score, fading, serpentine transitions include one from the sound of a CIA spook’s creaking footsteps to the sound of a federal judge’s zipper. Another goes from schoolchildren taking the Pledge of Allegiance to a mushroom cloud from an atomic bomb detonation. Bridge of Spies shifts to Pakistan, where U.S. pilot Francis Gary Powers prepares for a mission on a secret airplane with new reconnaissance technology. The destination: Soviet Russia. The film’s title tips its reconciliation theme, which is to be ignited by Donovan. Indeed, it’s Donovan who uniformly adopts a “humane attitude” about the Communist, the downed U.S. Air Force pilot and the young American in love with a girl in East Berlin. One of them, and it’s easy to guess which one, pegs Donovan as a man of principle. A shot of the man who stands alone on the bridge of spies is a signature on this selective Cold War portrait. The question of what principle he stands for is the real enigma in Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies.

Bridge of Spies is gently made, shot, framed, scored and arranged. It is also frosted with Cold War facets that sneak up like a deadly ghost. The expression on Donovan’s face when he witnesses an act of Communism in practice—matched by a contrasting expression of his awakening to an act of liberty in practice—makes Bridge of Spies an interesting and thought-provoking, if mixed, movie about a man’s moral character and dilemma.

But it is important to note that Bridge of Spies trivializes an undeniable low point in U.S. history. The actual events depicted in the film’s climax foreshadowed in history deepening American loss and appeasement to Communism. The U.S. caved to Communists over the Berlin Wall, South Vietnam, the USS Pueblo, USS Mayaguez, a Soviet shootdown of a jumbo passenger jet with innocent passengers and a U.S. congressman on board in 1983 and President Bush, in his first foreign policy test in 2001, yielded to Communist China’s seizure of a U.S. spy plane that collided with a Chinese fighter jet that killed the American pilot. As with Munich, it is impossible to detach from Steven Spielberg’s elegant and romanticized Bridge of Spies the facts of history.

Movie Review: The Martian

TheMartianPosterDirector Ridley Scott’s science fiction saga, The Martian, cleverly plays off the modern media culture. The story of an astronaut (Matt Damon, Hereafter) stranded on Mars begins with a band of spaceship Westerners, apparently at some point in the near future, bantering back and forth up through and until a literal storm warning. That hook quickly leads to the emergency departure of the space vessel, Hermes, which is the name of a Greek god who was messenger for the gods to mortals.

The Martian, based on the book by Andy Weir and adapted for the screen by Drew Goddard, delivers Ridley Scott’s mythological message.

It’s very purposeful, at times gripping, and it is probably unlike what most of today’s audiences have seen and come to expect from a movie set in outer space. Also, The Martian, which is strangely and invitingly both telescopic and episodic, shuttles between Earth and Mars, leaving space and its wonders largely off screen. The Martian is more intimate like Silent Running (1972) than it is like the recent and overrated Gravity. The scale, orientation and theme is utterly human. Damon’s astronaut, Mark, is the lone human left on another planet.

Whether and how he adapts and survives becomes the agonizing and, to some in the audience and probably by the filmmakers’ intention, humorous point of the tale and focus of the film. Mark begins his solitude by treating, medicating and healing himself. He hates disco music. He uses humor to cope. He imitates a popular TV character. In other words, Mark is an everyman. To prove it, Mark swears, gets cocky and makes mistakes. Mark is also a botanist, and he is resourceful, so maybe he stands a chance. With Mark as the main character, the audience bears witness as he becomes the Martian. What becomes of Mark—what becomes of the lost individual—is up to him. Should he ever make it off of Mars, it is equally up to everyone else.

This idea of interdependence is at the core of The Martian. Ridley Scott (Alien, Blade Runner, Gladiator, Robin Hood, Prometheus) reinforces the plot with this prospective interdependence and harmoniousness many times. It may be cloaked in other themes, such as man’s ability to think, reason and choose as the key to his survival, but man as a social being who must live, and learn to live, among others is the movie’s theme. This is fine to the degree it is true, and Mr. Scott does not mitigate the role of the superior individual in his own advancement and in the march of human progress. Again and again, the individual stands up to make an original thought, comment or action that leads to finding a new path. In this sense, the spirit of discovery is very much infused here. Damon’s Mark makes a valiant effort to stay alive and not out of duty; he wants to live, even if only to say “in your face, Neil Armstrong” in one of the more unfortunate lines.

On the way to this potential convergence of Mark’s impossible plight and the many others upon whom his life depends, The Martian itself feels derivative of other pictures and dependent upon audience predispositions to other movies based on today’s culture. This makes The Martian feel generic over the two hour, 20-minute haul. The banter among the Hermes astronauts, led by the ship’s commander (Jessica Chastain) and including crew played by Kate Mara (Brokeback Mountain) and Michael Pena (Ant-Man), chugs right along. Jeff Daniels (Pleasantville, Looper, TV’s The Newsroom) as the NASA chief, Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave) as the mission lead and Sean Bean (Troy, TV’s Game of Thrones) as head of flight operations, lead the team from crisis to crisis at conflicting purposes as various characters play their parts in the plan. Arcing upward toward some sort of twist and conclusion, The Martian is more than a bit too Hollywood.

That plot points chart the theme too neatly might make one overlook finer moments, such as a handwritten note at the last minute and a sudden desire to become more civilized in anticipation of communion, which felt like two of the most honest scenes in the picture. If The Martian oversimplifies the mechanics of an enormous mobilization of America’s military-space complex and underdramatizes the rest of humanity—and it does—it also accounts for the science, technology and dynamics of the mission, despite the Apollo 13-like cross-your-fingers quality and nods to religion. Audiences may notice the role of rebellion, too, in pursuing such noble ends in The Martian. There is much to feel good about in what might be called Ridley Scott’s hymn to humanity, a sort of anti-Alien, and Chastain, Mara, Ejiofor and Bean give especially good performances.

Everything in this problem-solving movie serves the climactic conflict resolution and nothing in The Martian feels perfunctory, even when it’s as generic as Matt Damon’s character. Scenes just before and during the end credits drive the mythological message home and, though The Martian is both too contrived and too contingent upon an opposite response to today’s pervasive sense of dread, it is also an experience that, in a world lacking in optimism, may be too good to pass up.

Movie Review: The Walk (IMAX 3D)

TheWalkPosterDirector Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future, Forrest Gump, Flight) perfectly applies his fascination with technology to storytelling in The Walk, which is one of the year’s best pictures.

On one layer, this is a light, whimsical movie about an acrobat taking his acrobatics seriously to prove an important point about human potential to the whole world. The visual, first-person narrative from the Statue of Liberty’s torch and other fanciful touches are part of the performance. Mr. Zemeckis, who also co-wrote The Walk, drives his idea of what one might call a performance artist’s creative need to act out over and over. Executed on the world’s tallest skyscrapers, a true story based on a high-wire walk by French acrobat Philippe Petit, it doesn’t get old and it doesn’t get in the way. As with any practiced, crafted and tuned live performance, the flourish enhances the daring act.

That the skyscrapers—and Mr. Zemeckis comes from a great American city of skyscrapers, Chicago—are the twin towers of the World Trade Center (1973-2001) make the events depicted in this groundbreaking movie more enticing.

Seen by this writer at Sid Grauman’s Chinese Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard in IMAX 3D, The Walk begins as the tale of a boy who seeks to create his own “sacred space” in a circle on the sidewalks of Paris. Of course, this puts him at odds with police and his own parents, who neither support nor understand his strange pursuits. Philippe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) mimes, juggles and, eventually, walks on wire. It is his passion to command an audience’s attention to certain aspects of reality as he recasts them. Philippe performs magic. He rides a unicycle. When he sees a picture of the World Trade Center under construction in New York City, he makes up his mind—he calls seeing the photograph “providence”—about embarking upon his greatest adventure.

As Philippe plans his trespassing crime, he sees walking on a wire between the Twin Towers as a defining part of his own, personal journey. So he sets out to practice his skill at a circus, where he enlists the aid of a seasoned high-wire performer (Ben Kingsley), who becomes Philippe’s mentor. Here, too, he breaks away from tradition and his insistence on doing things his way leads to other complications. As Philippe loses support from blood relatives, he gains support from those related only by their shared passion for their own values, such as singer Annie (Charlotte Le Bon, The Hundred-Foot Journey) and photographer Jean-Louis (Clément Sibony, The Tourist). “I want to know more,” Philippe says at one point in The Walk. His chosen friends and master help him learn to acquire new knowledge.

The camaraderie is infectious, as Philippe attracts an audience, makes mistakes, expresses fleeting moments of doubt, falls and learns how to relax into the high-wire act. In the process, he becomes the ultimate live performer, appreciating his own choices, audiences and themes and gauging how to assess the potential for distraction, danger and the risks of the fears of others. For example, one of his team members has a crippling fear of heights. Philippe, in dealing with his own fear of losing the lad, leads by example to provide the right measure of confidence in his own ability. With Mr. Kingsley’s circus ringmaster looking on while dragging on a cigarette in an elegant holder, Philippe studies cable thickness and load strength with the precision of an engineer. No detail, lesson or fact escapes his notice or accounting.

He is a cunning criminal; a foreigner plotting to intrude upon the World Trade Center for subversive purposes, and with a van full of foreign accomplices no less. No one who knows the history of the Twin Towers can ignore the stark similarities and differences in his crime and the acts of Islamic terrorist mass murder that would blast and ultimately take the skyscrapers down in 1993 and 2001. Philippe practices on the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris before he comes to lower Manhattan for that exceptional act in August of 1974, and, in a sense, the closest he comes to having a religion is his steely conviction in himself and in the power to master his mind and body here on earth, strictly on his own terms and for his own sake.

Philippe Petit is the antidote to the religious terrorist. He targets the World Trade Center to express himself and glorify man’s greatest achievements, not to martyr himself and destroy man’s greatest achievements. He calls his unexpected act by its French word: the coup.

The attempted coup is, as recreated by Mr. Zemeckis with amazing clarity and realism, body-tingling, nerve-wracking and breathtaking. The practices take place to Alan Silvestri’s jazz score. The act itself happens in silence or with music that matches its sense of the sublime. “The outside world starts to disappear,” Philippe recalls of his day on top of the world. “I feel the wire supporting me with the towers supporting the wire” and, in an instant, at the birth of the rising steel skyscrapers soaring into the clouds, the Frenchman who juggled for money on the sidewalks of Paris enacts something both beautiful and defiant in perfect unity with nature and the manmade. The Walk is meant for this moment, and everyone, especially Gordon-Levitt, cast and the special effects crew led by Mr. Zemeckis, lets it linger in wonder and amazement for a spectacularly powerful climax in cinema.

The Walk is that soulful. Who better than an independent Frenchman standing on top of France’s gift to America to stir the spirit of free enterprise that built the greatest nation on earth? Petit, who, in reality, called for the World Trade Center to be rebuilt, reduces his accomplishment’s metrics to its essential meaning in the beginning of The Walk. He speaks of a choice between life and death. This is the unspoken, fundamental contest between the World Trade Center acts of 1974 and 2001. The Walk, in two parts playfulness and precision, depicts peace and serenity as the proper reward for honoring the manmade upon its creation. Philippe Petit put an acrobatic accent on two great symbols of American capitalism; Robert Zemeckis brings the performance and its exhaustive practices gloriously to the screen.

If it achieves nothing more than this, an exact recreation of the single most life-affirming moment in the World Trade Center’s brief history here on earth, The Walk, which does what America should have done and rebuilds the Twin Towers, is worth every second of its two tantalizing hours.

Related Articles and Posts

Movie Review: World Trade Center

TV Review: Rebuilding the World Trade Center

TV & DVD Review: Path to Paradise (the Story of the 1993 World Trade Center Bombing)

Movie Review: Sicario

sicarioPosterDespair is the main theme of Sicario, the new movie by director Denis Villenueve. This one, like his previous picture, Prisoners, is stylized and well made. It proceeds as though it’s got something crucial to convey, with compelling characters, twists, scenes, transitions, music and photography. Everything is designed to build tension toward action and denouement.

That the foundational part is problematic does not make this picture about police, drugs and gangs and the two countries that feed off the buying and selling of drugs, the U.S. and Mexico, less enthralling. Sicario, starring Josh Brolin (True Grit, No Country for Old Men, Men in Black 3) and Benicio Del Toro (Traffic) and Emily Blunt (Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, Into the Woods), reunited after 2010’s underrated The Wolfman, stretches situational types—the cop as family man, the woman in a male-dominated profession, the jaded professional with a heart of gold—into a tight plot.

Villenueve keeps the audience both at bay and on edge, shrouding a Mexican drug cartel operation in mystery and blood. Hardness sets in from the start, with a federal drug bust in Arizona, and each character, from Brolin’s wise-cracking fed to Victor Garber’s polished professional, plays to Sicario‘s theme that practically no one can escape some form of a drug-induced death in the desert. If Prisoners enraptured with its theme that we are all just prisoners here, as the Eagles’ Don Henley sings, Sicario, which means hitman in Spanish, pushes the notion that everyone is guilty of doing some type of hit.

Blunt’s character bucks the trend, taking out drug gangsters but feeling it afterwards. She’s driven to exact justice with her partner (Daniel Kaluuya) and question the authority of those to whom she volunteers to report for a mysteriously dangerous mission into the center of the drug cartel. Collaborating with a seriously damaged Del Toro and swaggering Brolin and their motley, manly crew of various paramilitary types, Blunt’s earnest agent gives the murky field operation an air of credibility. But why this wild bunch needs her remains a mystery. With slow-moving overhead shots, a Twister-type droning score with pulsating beat before every action sequence, Villenueve makes the players matter one by one and without the camp and cartoonishness of Scarface or No Country for Old Men. There’s real craftsmanship in Sicario‘s filmmaking, alternating fast and slow action scenes, such as bang-bang gunplay peppered with step-by-step journeys into long passageways, signs and cityscapes signalling the bigger pictures and, in particular, one silhouetted transition from a public to private interior.

Sicario has nearly everything a drug gangster movie should include: jaded agents, shifting allegiance, double cross, guns, caravans, border crossings, Texans, Arizona and a honky tonk, too. It has a good script by Taylor Sheridan and good performances by Brolin, Blunt and especially Del Toro, a fine actor who deserves a role outside of drug culture. As good as Blunt is in the role of a policewoman on the verge of becoming a whistleblower as all the planning, raiding and shooting gets more convoluted, I didn’t totally buy her character. Many in today’s audiences probably will. She’s sufficiently blank and tough in the cop role, with a flat American accent that reminded me of Jane Leeves as Brit Daphne Moon doing a deep, flat American accent on Frasier. I like Blunt as an actress because she can play a wide variety of roles with conviction. She does that here, too.

But either the part’s underdeveloped or today’s female supercop is so deeply ingrained through countless movies and TV police procedural programs that you might not notice the character’s several mistakes. She errs in judgment time and again, from losing a weapon and lagging behind to other questionable decisions, including saying the movie’s worst lines. Her character’s stumbles blend into the hyper-tense action, so it’s less noticeable, but each of her out of place objections, mistakes and reckless actions diminish the character’s plausibility. This may be part of bleak Sicario‘s point about the character’s arc, for all I know. It is certainly part of its theme that despair from fighting a war on the drug cartel is human.

“We must be engaged to engage,” someone warns before one of the movie’s most exciting scenes. The ever-looping cycle of engagement, whatever else Sicario lacks, including an examination of what drives engagement of buying, selling and outlawing drugs, is a targeted, terrifying depiction.